As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002
by Clive James
A review by Benjamin Schwarz
James is among the very small number of great critics writing today a group
that includes Martin
Vidal, and Christopher
Hitchens. All write with verve and recklessness, which they combine with
extraordinary erudition. All are imbued with what James calls "the spirit of
Grub Street" all, that is, write in "the tradition of supplying a supplement
and a corrective to ... the dust contractors of the universities." The authors
and subjects he examines in this collection of "essays" really review essays
range from Nabokov
Krantz, from Richard Nixon's memoirs to the Final Solution; from Stevie
Smith to Peter Bogdanovich, from Philip
Larkin to Marilyn Monroe. (Among and within his pieces James artfully juxtaposes
the high and the low a tendency he shares with Ackroyd. Both men have been
regular television critics.) He is penetrating on all these (especially Larkin),
but I find him most astute and heartfelt in his assessments of his fellow literary
His celebrated 1972 essay on Edmund
Wilson remains the most trenchant appreciation of both the critic's writing
("Wilson's style adopted the Mencken-Nathan toughness but eschewed the belligerence
throwing no punches, it simply put its points and waited for intelligent
men to agree") and his peculiar point of view as a "patrician individualist,"
revolted by the fact that "the Republic he loved began to be overwhelmed by
the Democracy he had never been sure about." He hits the mark in his evaluation
of Vidal, whom he rightly regards as Wilson's "natural heir," who "just knows
a lot, possesses an unusual amount of common sense and writes scrupulously lucid
prose" but whose critical honesty is hobbled by his "thirst for glamour."
And James is equally incisive on Susan
Sontag, who, he writes, "conspicuously lacks the one quality every critic
must have and an excellent critic must have in abundance: the capacity not to
be carried away by a big idea."
His piece on Orwell,
however (who not only made political writing an art but, James correctly avers,
"is the first person to read on Swift, on Dickens, and on Gissing"), is the
best here, and among the best considerations of that author ever written. Sure,
James praises Orwell's style and its "irresistible force of assertion," but
far more valuably, he takes apart Orwell's sentences to show us how he created
conversational prose like a windowpane. And James succinctly tells us why to
read Orwell, why to be wary of him, and why to revere him: "Not even Orwell
could resist a resonant statement that fudged the facts a clarity that is
really an opacity. Yes, Orwell did write like an angel, and that's the very
reason we have to watch him like a hawk. Luckily for us, he was pretty good
at watching himself. He was blessed with a way of putting things that made everything
he said seem so, but that was only a gift. His intellectual honesty was a virtue."
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